When Ignorance Meets Nationalism: Missing the Beauty of the Rhodope Villages

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Valentina Ivaylova Notcheva is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

A couple of months ago, purely out of a mix of boredom and nostalgia, I was surfing the internet and stumbled upon a YouTube video montage of Bulgaria entitled, “Bulgaria: the Way I Saw it”. Developed by someone who was a Peace Corps volunteer teacher in Bulgaria for several years, the video clips and pictures captured a side of Bulgaria that most foreigners (and evidently some Bulgarians themselves) are not familiar with. I thought the video was fantastic for a simple montage, apart from the “chalga” music. Unfortunately, the comments beneath it made my blood pressure rise. What bothered me for days (and to be honest, also shocked me) was the amount of crass, hateful, racist, and prejudiced comments written by fellow Bulgarians about the content of the video. They claimed that the small, old and relatively isolated villages gave tourists and foreigners the “wrong impression” of Bulgaria, and was not the “real Bulgaria”.

What “image” of Bulgaria these people desire for the world to see still is a mystery to me, seeing as how the video exactly captured what Bulgaria meant to me, my family, and many others who had visited and experienced rural Bulgarian life. I left a comment to sum up my feelings and opinion; which, although biased, was also my genuine take on it. Evidently my words were not enough to convince or even persuade the commenters how beautiful their country was depicted in the clip, and how their nasty comments about Pomaks, Muslims, Turks, gypsies, minorities (the list goes on) were very unbecoming and looked extremely….ignorant. The level of hypocrisy was unnerving. These people who were apparently so concerned about the “Bulgarian image” in the world’s eyes were the same ones leaving obscenities and nasty remarks about their own country and people!

Here is the comment I left, and the reply I received, as an example. This commenter was trying to make the case that the title of the video was misleading, because in her mind, Bulgaria has nothing to do with the Bulgarian Pomak culture, which she relabeled as ‘Turkish’. (Confused yet?)

“This clip exactly captures the essence of Bulgarian culture- hospitality of the Bulgarian people, hard work, and its natural beauties. My father was born and raised in Sofia, and when we come for holiday we tend to avoid it deliberately.

I visited Gorno Dryanovo, Leshten, and Kovachevitsa  to see my two best friends and their welcoming families who live there (both are among the absolute sweetest and most generous girls I have met) and I would  never trade the memories and relationships that I made for anything.

All the villages were absolutely gorgeous and something I could never forget in my life. This is the GENUINE Bulgaria that is part of my childhood, this is the part of Bulgaria that my parents (Bulgarian) felt comfortable and relaxed visiting. This is the Bulgaria that I wish I could go back and see again. This side of Bulgaria is full of some of the nicest and open people you will ever meet. These types of villages (of course in addition to traditional Bulgarian towns and old cities) are the reason why the Bulgarians in the video love Bulgaria, will always love Bulgaria, and want to be buried in Bulgaria. Not because of a few materialistic, over sexualized cities that imitate the West.”

Her reply:

It captures the essence of the Turkish minority culture in Bulgaria, not the Bulgarian culture. These people are not the face of Bulgaria as they are Muslims and their culture is a minority in the country. The video has a wrong title – it should have been “Muslims in Bulgaria – the Way I Saw Them”. Otherwise, it implies that all Bulgarians are Muslims, or that this is the majority population in the country. You know very well that this is not true. We don’t need any more lies and misrepresentations of our identity! The faces of Bulgaria are Orthodox Christians who make up 85% of the population. Anyone else is a minority and this should be specified at the start to avoid confusion among viewers who know nothing about Bulgaria.”

Religion and Ethnicity are Not One and the Same

In case you were unaware, Gorno Dryanovo and most of the surrounding villages in that area (i.e. Rhodope mountains in southern Bulgaria) are inhabited by nominal Muslims, due to the influence of the Turkish Ottoman Empire circa late 14th century. The empire spanned for a period of about five hundred years, and certain once-Christianized villages were subjected to adapt to Turkish customs. Consequently, these villages were forced to convert to Islam en masse.

One fact remains true however- which is that these Bulgarians to this day remain ethnic BULGARIANS, regardless of the Turkish or Islamic influence they may have historically lived under. They speak Bulgarian, are entitled to rights as natural Bulgarian citizens, share Bulgarian history, and have Bulgarian blood. Many of these YouTube comments blindly referred to the people shown in the video as “Turkish minorities” which is completely and entirely inaccurate. While there are also Bulgarian-Turkish minorities who are persecuted (an entirely new issue in and of itself), it would be untrue to claim that Pomaks are also ethnically Turkish by virtue of their religion -thus already limiting the credibility of about 80% of the comments that I read. Note: ethnicity and official religion are completely SEPARATE entities, people!!

Hypocrisy Abounds When We Judge Others

And so…as far as the argument presented in the comments is concerned: YES, the Pomaks are a (one) face of Bulgaria and should be rightly seen as such. They are certainly not the only face, but they are in fact part of extremely important Bulgarian history and should not be regarded as inferior to the “typical” Orthodox Bulgarian.

Secondly, the cynicism shown in such a statement as hers, claiming that this video (not a documentary of Bulgaria, by the way!) set out to misrepresent Bulgaria and lead people astray on purpose appalls me. I’m sure the intent of this Peace Corps Volunteer was to maliciously spread lies about Bulgaria (that’s sarcasm) because that’s what the whole world intends to do!

Thirdly, if we stay on the subject of being “mislead by media”, I would just like to casually point out the 85% Orthodox Christian demographic this lady claimed is one MISLEADING figure. As my mother explained, while approximately 85% may claim to be Eastern Orthodox Christian, it’s highly probable that very few are actually Christians, as in have a relationship with Christ in their hearts. I would venture to say that close to none have ever opened and read the Bible – yet Bulgaria is officially coined a ‘Christian’ country. Evidently, even a racist or someone blinded by prejudice will be quick to conveniently use the term “Christian” to bash and eliminate anyone or any subculture that is different from them in some way; that is not mainstream or typical. Once again, show me the hypocrisy!

Traditional Values vs. Materialism

This video depicts a side shown of modern Bulgaria, Gorno Dryanovo, which does not glorify materialistic possessions, corruption, sex, or power. This side of modern Bulgaria also keeps tradition and authentic Bulgarian culture close and intact, refusing to compromise their values in a vain effort to emulate the West (or rather, what is portrayed by media as being “Western”). I am in no way putting down the United States by implying that our country doesn’t have any values or, conversely, implying that the U.S. is the creme de la creme. Our streets are not paved with gold, as many friends of mine from Europe seemed to think.

The United States is known world-wide for being one of the best countries in which to raise a family and start a career. The problem comes when many countries, including Bulgaria, have certain cities (namely Sofia) that try to “revamp” and over-develop for the purpose of showing off, but don’t take into consideration the wholesome values countries they are imitating have to offer. Justice and merit in the workforce are important. Here in the U.S., you don’t get a certain job because you ‘know someone’ who ‘knows someone’ who may also happen to know the right guy, and bribery in business is viewed as being unacceptable in the 21st century.

My point is, not only is a city like Sofia destroying itself from the inside out physically with the constant obsession for ‘next best thing’, the newest things, or the shiniest things (not to mention that people there do not smile), but the beautiful Bulgarian culture, happy people, and gorgeous landscape that I was reminded of in this volunteer’s video are slowly disintegrating. That’s not to say that a country cannot be cosmopolitan and stay true to their traditions, customs, and cultures at the same time. In my opinion, the villages of Gorno Dryanovo and Kovachevitsa specifically featured in the video do just that, and effectively maintain a balance. These Bulgarians value modern education and embrace modern technology, pop culture from other countries, travel, etc, yet also maintain their respect for family and hierarchy, hospitality towards strangers, and concern for nature and the land on which they live.

Tearing Down One’s Nation

So why all the negative attention on this video all of a sudden? Why are the Bulgarian YouTube commenters afraid to show the world just a few of many breathtaking villages that are unique to their nation? What are they trying to prove to the world by leaving nasty comments about how “Muslim” this particular village is and how “Orthodox Christian” the rest of Bulgaria is; how “dirty” and “poor” this village is versus how “advanced” the rest of Bulgaria is?

Comments that put down and tear apart people such as “Is this Bulgaria?!? Only gypsies and Pomaks in the Rhodope mountains? This video is bullshit!” do nothing to help public relations or this supposed “civilized” image of Bulgarian people. Why are you embarrassing yourselves on YouTube by slamming your own compatriots with bigotry and stupidity? Bulgarian people are better than this. The ones I’ve known my whole life are truly nice, knowledgable, open people and any rude comments I saw in this particular video I personally viewed as being below their intelligence. The country is better than the misery lurking in the big cities! I love Bulgaria in its traditional, authentic state; I love my friends and family that live there – whether they are Muslim, whether they are Christian, whether they are atheist, whether they are gypsy, or whether they are of mixed ethnicity!

The person inside is who I love: their character, their intelligence, their sense of compassion, their knowledge of life, their hospitality – those are the qualities that are attractive and that ultimately matter in forming a  close-knit, sustainable community such as the one in Gorno Dryanovo. No wonder all these Pomaks are smiling. Those are the qualities in people that ultimately develop a strong, just nation; through one individual at a time.

Maybe I’m just too naive. I’d be lying if I said that sometimes I wasn’t tired of this world that we’re living in, that is unfortunately filled with hate. But then I see what people God has strategically put in front of me for a reason, and I fall in love with life all over again. The fact of the matter is that there is much love to go around as there is hate; enough potential in people to improve our communities as much as there is ignorance. I see the potential in people after getting to know them; I like to seek out their good sides and connect to them somehow, even if I have nothing in common. And that’s how I know for sure that as humans, we can do much better and be more considerate, smarter people than we already are. We have the ability to control what comes out of our mouths and minds no matter where in the world we may come from or which customs we may follow. People seem to lack motivation anymore to be the best that they can be – in the public eye, or in private. This is Bulgaria as we ought to see it.

What are your thoughts? Leave us a comment.

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2 thoughts on “When Ignorance Meets Nationalism: Missing the Beauty of the Rhodope Villages

  1. Good for you. It’s so important to stand up and say what’s right even in the face of ignorance and prejudice. Otherwise the ignorant and prejudiced believe everyone feels as they do and they are emboldened to go farther than merely speaking their (closed) minds. If Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and the average Bulgarian citizen had not historically seen the Jewish minority in their midst as Jewish Bulgarians (i.e., Bulgarians first, religious identity being merely the adjective), the country would not now be celebrated as one of the only two countries (Denmark being the other) which did not send its Jewish citizens to the death camps. If Bulgaria had succumbed to the views the commenters you refer to have, Bulgaria would have fallen apart in violence and conflict as did its neighbor Yugoslavia. All Bulgarians should take pride in the country’s varied communities and support them. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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